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Hansen’s righteous cause Bryan Walker Apr 19

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The latest communication from James Hansen to his email list this week was a sharp reminder that the New Zealand Government’s commitment to the pursuit of unexploited fossil fuels is part of widespread malpractice.

The global stampede to find every possible fossil fuel is not being opposed by governments, no matter how dirty the fuels nor how senseless the energy strategy is from long-term economic and moral perspectives.

The specific case that Hansen focuses on is the Alberta tar sands. He has some chilling statistics.

Alberta tar sands are estimated to be 240 GtC (gigatons of carbon); see Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) Working Group 3 report. That is about seven times greater than the cumulative historical CO2 emissions from oil use by the U.S. (36 GtC). U.S. oil use was 28% of global oil use for the cumulative amounts over the past 200 years. So Alberta tar sands contain about twice the total amount of carbon emitted by global oil use in history.

This is the resource that the Canadian government is bent on exploiting for its claimed benefit to the economy. It may be far larger than anything New Zealand’s exploration is likely to reveal, but the same economic justification is offered by the NZ government for its commitment to find and exploit every last bit of fossil fuel that can be tracked down. The same too is the silence about what the burning of the fuel will mean for the global climate.

Hansen finds some comfort in a letter sent this week by the Norwegian Grandparent’s Climate Campaign, supported by 27 other organisations, to the partially state-owned Norwegian company Statoil urging it to withdraw its substantial funding for the Alberta tar sands project.  Statoil’s heavy involvement in the tar sands project is another example of a government which professes, and to some degree practices, engagement in emissions reduction but in contradiction allows its largely state-owned company to engage in the pursuit of unconventional oil.

A letter from a grandparents’ organisation seems unlikely to have much effect and Hansen acknowledges as much.

Given the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry has on governments worldwide and their effective campaigns to misinform the public, this may seem to be a small step.

But as a motivated grandparent himself he holds fast to the importance of continuing to assert the moral imperative to move away from fossil fuel energy:

But do not underestimate the potential of people dedicated to a righteous cause to initiate a broader public recognition and understanding of where the public’s interest lies.

Righteous cause has an old-fashioned ring to it. I can hear the snorts of realpolitik practitioners. But Hansen is right to see this as a fundamentally ethical issue. It is also not hopeless to advance it on that basis. Not all of society is heedless of morality.

Note: The picture at  the head of this post was supplied to Hansen by one of the grandparents, with the accompanying note:

I am enclosing a photo from today’s presentation by Norwegian Grandparents Climate Campaign – GCC to Statoil main office in Oslo of letter signed by 28 organizations and political parties demanding that Statoil withdraw from Canadian tar sand. Grandparent Bente Bakke was joined by Anne Dalberg, chair of the Sami Church Council. Norway’s First Nation – the Sami – showing solidarity with Canadian First Nations. Money may rule, but morals may be stronger!

A fighting chance? Bryan Walker Oct 08

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Bill McKibben has a striking article this week in Yale e360 in which he explains why the protest against the pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to the US may be the start of ’something big and desperate’. The desperate part is easy to understand. Three converging factors contribute to it, political, meteorological and geological.

Politically the US administration has failed to secure carbon legislation, or even to show much resolve to do so, with the result that there isn’t going to be a price on carbon in America, and hence not in most of the world, any time soon. The hope that surrounded Obama’s election in that respect has evaporated.

That hope was perhaps always excessive – but then, the man himself had done all that he could to encourage it. On the night he clinched the nomination he said that during his presidency ’the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet begin to heal.’ Waiting for a messiah, we managed to convince ourselves we might have found one.

Meanwhile the climate is changing.

Sometime in the last few years it became utterly clear we’d left the Holocene behind, bound for some new, chaotic place in which humans had fundamentally altered the planet.

2010 was the warmest year for which we have records; Arctic sea ice is now at its lowest recorded level, while Canada’s Arctic ice shelves have shrunk by half in just the last six years. And what all this has shown is that the planet is coming unglued, at least the planet on which civilization developed. We’ve seen flooding and drought on a scale never witnessed before, from the Indus to the Mississippi, from Texas to the North China Plain. By the end of last year, the world’s biggest insurance company, Munich Re, was declaring that the unprecedented run of catastrophes ’cannot be explained without global warming.’

McKibben’s third factor, the geological, is equally disturbing. As oil prices have risen the oil companies are finding it economic to go after shale gas, shale oil, and ’the granddaddy of them all, the tars sands megaproject in northern Alberta’.

They have a pool of oil – and hence of carbon – about the same size as the one we’ve largely burned in Saudi Arabia. If we torch most of it, then it’s ’essentially game over for the climate,’ in the words of NASA’s James Hansen.

Against these factors the environmental battle to keep the carbon in the ground is elemental — ’easy to understand, worth going to jail for’. The hope is that the Keystone XL pipeline protest might buy some time. It’s a desperate battle to keep things from getting worse. If delay can be achieved then maybe during that time we will come to our senses about global warming.

Keystone XL is such a huge deal because the president can actually stop it himself, without consulting our inane Congress. That’s why we’ll be surrounding the White House on Nov. 6, circling it with people simply holding signs with quotes from his campaign. Like, ’it’s time to end the tyranny of oil.’ It sure is, and if Obama for once actually lives up to his words, just maybe it will signal something new about him. My guess is we’re not going to change meteorology or geology, which leaves us with politics.

In the course of a Guardian interview with Leo Hickman this week McKibben expands on the theme that this is a real battle

The thing that is becoming clearer and clearer is that this is a fight. The idea that held for years that we could all talk rationally to politicians about this and that they would do the right thing is now over. What we failed to count on was while we talked to them rationally in one ear with science and economics the oil industry was doubling in the other ear the threats to keep anyone from doing anything.

And the fossil-fuel industry is powerful and pouring resources into delaying action on climate change:

In a fair fight, we would have won this battle long ago because the science is clear and most people have a sincere desire to build a different kind of world that will work best for their kids. But the battle is not being fought on science, but on money. There is an enormous interest within the fossil-fuel industry to prevent change for even a few more years while they wrack up records profits.

The environmental movement can’t possibly match that kind of money.

’Until we find a different currency to work in, we’re always going to lose. We’re never going to have enough money to compete with these guys head on. That’s why we’re experimenting with lots of different currencies. There’s a lot of spirit, creativity and energy in these global days of action.’

McKibben admits to learning on the job as an activist, but in my eyes he’s making a good fist of it. The fact that he’s a writer by profession is no drawback. As we watch the dreary procession of politicians denying, prevaricating, delaying, looking the other way, it’s not surprising that the population at large is hardly aware of the dangers threatening. Meanwhile the enthusiastic search for unconventional oil and gas proceeds apace, with the possible prospect of a long extension of fossil fuel exploitation and use. Here in New Zealand the government and Solid Energy and others speak of how we mustn’t miss the opportunity to draw wealth from such resources. I’ve commented before on how normal this is all taken to be.

What is left but active protest? McKibben speaks for those who are trying to build a movement of sufficient size and urgency to thrust the science to the fore. Hickman in the interview asked if it needed an Arab Spring-type uprising of outcry and revolution, driven through social networking, and McKibben replied that that might well be part of what is required. It’s hard to believe that such a movement can be built in the face of the powerful forces which have so far been able to neutralise the message from science. But all honour to those who are trying. It’s unquestionably a battle worth fighting.

Tar Sands Action Draws to a Finish, But More to Come says McKibben Bryan Walker Sep 02

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“Be here on Saturday September 3rd. You don’t need to get arrested. There will be people getting arrested but we’re to also have a big rally and … its going to be a beautiful finish to phase one of this campaign. After that stay tuned…this is a fight we might actually have some chance of winning and so we’ve got to keep the pressure seriously on.”

That’s Bill McKibben in this short street interview. Spare them a thought on Saturday.

The Power of Non-violent Civil Disobedience Bryan Walker Aug 26

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In a post on the Guardian website Bill McKibben reflects on civil disobedience after his stint in jail last weekend. He had thought he might be writing a blog post from jail:

’But frankly, I wasn’t up to it. The police, surprised by how many people turned out on the first day of two weeks of protests at the White House, decided to teach us a lesson. As they told our legal team, they wanted to deter anyone else from coming — and so, with our first crew, they were… kind of harsh.

’We spent three days in D.C.’s Central Cell Block, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it might be. You lie on a metal rack with no mattress or bedding and sweat in the high heat; the din is incessant; there’s one baloney sandwich with a cup of water every 12 hours.

’I didn’t have a pencil — they wouldn’t even let me keep my wedding ring — but, more important, I didn’t have the peace of mind to write something. It’s only now, out 12 hours and with a good night’s sleep under my belt, that I’m able to think straight.’

The experience has increased his already strong admiration for Martin Luther King, and he’ll go to this weekend’s big celebrations for the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Washington Mall with even more respect for King’s calm power.

’Preacher, speaker, writer under fire, but also tactician. He really understood the power of nonviolence, a power we’ve experienced in the last few days.’

McKibben  writes that the police crack-down brought publicity that cemented two of the main purposes of the protest. First, it made the pipeline into a national issue and highlighted the danger it poses to the planet. The message of that danger is getting through, in evidence of which McKibben cites a strong New York Times editorial opposing the pipeline that he was handed on his release from jail. Second, being arrested in front of the White House helped make it clearer that President Obama should be the focus of anti-pipeline activism:

’Barack Obama has the power to stop it and no one in Congress or elsewhere can prevent him from doing so. That means — and again, it couldn’t be simpler — that the Keystone XL decision is the biggest environmental test for him between now and the next election. If he decides to stand up to the power of big oil, it will send a jolt through his political base, reminding the presently discouraged exactly why they were so enthused in 2008.’

However there’s a deeper message to the protest, one which Dr King the strategist understood well, and that is just how powerful a weapon nonviolence can be.

’The police, who trust the logic of force, never quite seem to get this. When they arrested our group of 70 or so on the first day of our demonstrations, they decided to teach us a lesson by keeping us locked up extra long — strong treatment for a group of people peacefully standing on a sidewalk.

’No surprise, it didn’t work. The next day an even bigger crowd showed up — and now there are throngs of people who have signed up to be arrested every day until the protests end on September 3rd. Not only that, a judge threw out the charges against our first group, and so the police have backed off. For the moment, anyway, they’re not actually sending more protesters to jail, just booking and fining them.’

Over the coming weekend’s celebration of Martin Luther King, McKibben sees the continuing protest and presumably continuing arrests as ’a kind of living tribute’:

’While people are up on the mall at the monument, we’ll be in the front of the White House, wearing handcuffs, making clear that civil disobedience is not just history in America.

’We may not be facing the same dangers Dr. King did, but we’re getting some small sense of the kind of courage he and the rest of the civil rights movement had to display in their day — the courage to put your body where your beliefs are. It feels good.’

Civil disobedience in support of climate change action seems to me only likely to spread as the intransigence or pusillanimity of governments continues to hinder the steps necessary to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If little notice is taken of the science, of the public statements, the letters, the submissions, the resolutions, the protests, the petitions, then civil disobedience will play its part in the expression of people’s concern in a matter of great moment for humanity. It puts stress on the body politic, but openly, responsibly and with restraint.

Arrests and jailings begin Bryan Walker Aug 22

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Arrests have begun on the first two days of the tar sands protest action outside the White House which I wrote about on Friday. Bill McKibben was among the first batch arrested on Saturday. The police have tightened up on their earlier assurances that the arrests would result in a $100 fine and release the same day. They are now keeping the arrested people in jail until a court appearance today.  The U.S. Park Police told organizers of the sit-in that the jail time was expressly intended as a deterrent for future participants. They were especially concerned that sit-ins would continue during the week of events beginning on August 28 surrounding the dedication of a new memorial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest exponents of creative nonviolence.

McKibben’s message to fellow organizers from jail:

’The only thing we need in here is more company. We don’t need your sympathy, we need your company.’

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who was also arrested on Saturday said:

 ’Saturday’s arrests and overnight jailings are already lighting a fire. More people are now inspired, determined, and committed to join. On Monday alone over 20 DC-area doctors, lawyers and students will be going to jail to chant, sing, and stop the pipeline. They’ll be joining Nebraska ranchers and others nationwide. Word is spreading.’

Saturday’s jailings didn’t deter the Sunday demonstration. 70 people gathered for it and 45 were arrested.  You can follow the course of the protest on the Tar Sands Action website, and I’ll provide updates from time to time over the next fortnight. These arrested people represent all of us who are perturbed by governments’ failure to respond to the warnings of science

Why Tar Sands Must Stay in the Ground Bryan Walker Aug 20

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After drawing attention to climatologist Jason Box’s intention to take part in the act of civil disobedience planned at Washington over the next fortnight, I thought it might be useful to underline why the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas, is so appalling a prospect.  James Hansen puts it plainly in a short paper he issued a couple of months ago. It’s the sheer size of the tar sands resource which makes it alarming. Hansen acknowledges that there are multiple objections to the pipeline, including the destruction of the environment in Canada and the likelihood of spills along the pipeline’s pathway, though thinks it unlikely that these will be enough to stop it going ahead. But it’s the climate change implication which is crucial:

’An overwhelming objection is that exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts. The tar sands are estimated (e.g., see IPCC AR4 WG3 report) to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm CO2).

’Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm. However, if emissions from coal are phased out over the next few decades and if unconventional fossil fuels are left in the ground, it is conceivable to stabilize climate.

’Phase out of emissions from coal is itself an enormous challenge. However, if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over. There is no practical way to capture the CO2 emitted while burning oil, which is used principally in vehicles.’

Given the current state of our knowledge it ought to be unthinkable that such a project should proceed. The governments which are backing it and the companies which are carrying it out are either deeply ignorant or dangerously reckless. Hansen puts it more mildly:

’Governments are acting as if they are oblivious to the fact that there is a limit on how much fossil fuel carbon we can put into the air. Fossil fuel carbon injected into the atmosphere will stay in surface reservoirs for millennia. We can extract a fraction of the excess CO2 via improved agricultural and forestry practices, but we cannot get back to a safe CO2 level if all coal is used without carbon capture or if unconventional fossil fuels are exploited.’

Bill McKibben had a trenchant op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week discussing the forthcoming protest and describing the decision on the pipeline as a defining moment for Obama.

’He has to sign a certificate of national interest before the border-crossing pipeline can be built. Under the relevant statutes, Congress is not involved, so he doesn’t need to stand up to the global-warming deniers calling the shots in the House…

’Obama can’t escape it simply by saying that someone else will burn the oil if we don’t. Alberta is remote, and its only other possible pipeline route – to the Pacific and hence Asia – is tangled in litigation. That’s why the province’s energy minister told Canada’s Globe and Mail last month that without the Keystone pipeline Alberta would be ‘landlocked in bitumen’…’

If Obama blocks the pipeline the oil will stay in the ground for at least a while longer. ’Long enough, perhaps,’ says McKibben, ’that the planet will come fully to its senses about climate change.

Moving the earth for oil Bryan Walker Jan 11

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Ethical oil. That’s what Canada is producing from its massive tar sands operation, according to the newly appointed Environment Minister Peter Kent. I admit to having missed that dimension in what I have read of the oil extraction from tar sands. I understood that when the CO2 emissions from its production is added to the CO2 from its combustion it emits between 10 and 45 percent more than conventional crude. I also understood that the environmental effects of the mining and extraction process are appalling, that restoration undertakings are more promised than real and that First Nation communities are gravely affected. Most telling of all I understood that according to James Hansen if the world wants to have a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change it must not only rapidly phase out coal emissions but also leave unconventional fossil fuels such as oil from tar sands in the ground.

But I didn’t understand that tar sand oil was ethical. What makes it so? The Minister explains:

’It is a regulated product in an energy superpower democracy. The profits from this oil are not used in undemocratic or unethical ways. The proceeds are used to better society in the great Canadian democracy. The wealth generated is shared with Canadians, with investors.’

He added in a subsequent interview that the Obama administration needs to be reminded that, unlike the energy it buys from other foreign suppliers, oil-sands petroleum ’is the product of a natural resource whose revenues don’t go to fund terrorism.’

So the oil is ethical because Canada is a democracy. He doesn’t actually name the countries which produce less than ethical oil, but his characterisation presumably draws on a recent book Ethical Oil by Canadian author Ezra Levant which instances Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela and Sudan as much less desirable sources.

As the Globe and Mail sees it, Kent’s pitch is ’an attempt to beat back efforts by U.S. politicians and activists who want a boycott of Canada’s oil sands owing to its greenhouse-gas-heavy extraction methods and ensuing environmental damage’.

Kent complains that the product has been demonised, but in its support falls back on the sort of argument we’ve heard a lot of in New Zealand. He calls it ’relevant measurements’.

’Oil-sands production accounts, I think, for 5 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and barely 1 per cent of the equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions by American coal-fired power generators.’

Citing the tentative economic recovery, Kent said the Harper government will not impose any greenhouse-gas reductions on the oil patch that would discourage investment across the sector.

’Our focus for the next several years is going to continue to be on maintaining the economic recovery and we will do nothing in the short term which would unnecessarily compromise or threaten to compromise that recovery. It is not our intention to discourage development of one of our great natural resources. We know it can be developed responsibly.’

The Canadian government does have some intentions for emissions reductions — 17 percent down from 2005 levels by 2020. But the rules when they come will be drawn up ’with a sensitivity to maintaining a competitive situation’.

It is clear that the Canadian Government has not faced up to the fact that we can’t both successfully tackle the threat of climate change and also pursue fossil fuels to depletion. That’s the plain fact of the matter, and no amount of bluster about developing natural resources or economic recovery or maintaining competitiveness can alter it.

It’s a fact which many Governments must face, not only Canada’s. Indeed while reading the Globe and Mail report I was struck by the similarities to the position of the New Zealand government. Our Minister of Energy and Economic Development is defending the exploitation of what he describes as our natural resources with equal robustness. He paints a rosy economic future from deep sea oil drilling and lignite coal development. It will, of course, be undertaken with due regard for the environment. In fact, he went so far as to say in his opening address to the NZ Petroleum Conference last September that the development is needed to enable us to care for our environment.

’I would strongly argue that it is only through a strong economy that New Zealand can afford the expenditure required to look after and improve our environment. A strong economy allows the government to spend money on biodiversity, on improving water quality, on insulating our houses, on protecting our endangered species and preserving our heritage. All those things cost money. None of them are free. A strong economy allows expenditure on them…

’So rather than stop ourselves from using our natural wealth, this government has made it clear we want to develop our natural resources in an environmentally responsible way.’

The doublethink is staggering.  The only honest way of putting what both Ministers are saying is that anything we do towards emissions reduction will be token at best, because we are dead set on developing our fossil fuel resources. Why don’t they just put it baldly so that we all know where our Governments stand?  Why the weasel words about environmental protection?  Why talk of reducing emissions when they plan fuelling their increase on a large scale?

We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be.

No doubt I’ll be accused of being simplistic in pressing such questions when the issue is one of great complexity. Well, there may be complexities to be worked through, but the underlying picture is starkly simple. We work as rapidly and purposefully as we can to reduce emissions or we make the future climate changes even worse than they already will be. It was a group of Canadian scientists who have just published a widely reported paper in Nature Geoscience which predicts climate change resulting from even the present level of CO2 will be persisting for centuries. I wonder what Canadian Ministers make of that.

Another newly published Canadian paper was reported on TV3 news last night because of the major shrinkage it predicted in New Zealand glaciers during this century. I wonder if that registered with New Zealand Ministers. All the wealth of the South Island lignite fields or of oil discovered in deep sea drilling won’t suffice to put the ice back in the glaciers.

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